A Test of Time and A Test of Time Revisited

The great volcanic eruption of the Thera (or Santorini volcano) in the southern Aegean has been central to several archaeological controversies. Originally, the main question was whether this eruption (now the largest of the last 12,000 years1) destroyed Minoan Crete. However, in recent decades, as much or more attention has focused on its date. When was this eruption? The conventional position was ca. 1500BC, whereas archaeological science approaches have suggested a date around 100 or so years earlier in the late 17th century BC. This Thera date question has become inextricably linked to the wider chronological synchronisation of the civilisations of the Aegean and east Mediterranean in the second millennium BC. It has become a great debate involving many scholars and a variety of trenchant viewpoints. The earlier date would require the rewriting of much conventional history – this is of course always a difficult step for many.

9781782972198A Test of Time, published in 1999, took on this debate and proposed the early date and an early cultural synthesis. Much has changed since A Test of Time appeared, and the book has long been out of print. What was radical then, is starting to become likely today. A new book available summer 2014 therefore includes both a reprint of the original 1999 book (A Test of Time) and an entirely new 202-page A test of Time Revisited: http://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/test-of-time.html. The new book reviews and analyses recent data, and critiques scholarship appearing over the intervening years. It discusses the much more extensive radiocarbon evidence now available, and shows how these data clearly and robustly point towards a date around the late 17th century BC (and why many claims to the contrary are unlikely or incorrect). Meanwhile, much of the previous archaeological case against an earlier date has been slowly dissolving away under forensic examination by a new generation of scholars (most notably Felix Höflmayer2) – even adherents of the conventional date no longer cite many previously mentioned pieces of evidence.

Nonetheless, for many, the great site of Tell el-Dab‘a in the Nile Delta, excavated under Manfred Bietak, represents the ultimate roadblock. The very precisely stated chronology for the site has been held as proof that the early chronology has to be wrong for some reason (and Bietak has stated this repeatedly in publications). And so it almost seemed that an impasse had been reached.

But the last couple of years have seen everything start to change, and dramatically. In particular:

  • The archaeological chronology of Tell el-Dab‘a was entirely contradicted by a detailed radiocarbon study on samples from the site3; and
  • New finds at Tell Edfu in Upper Egypt indicate a much earlier date for a prominent Hyksos king, Khayan, than the Bietak/Tell el-Dab‘a chronology stated – indeed they indicate a date for the supposed Khayan contexts at Tell el-Dab‘a in line with the radiocarbon evidence4. (On 4-5 July, 2014, a conference in Vienna discussed the Khayan situation and many scholars (but not Manfred Bietak) now accept that major revision is necessary.)

It now seems with careful and critical examination of the stratigraphy and finds at Tell el-Dab‘a that a new chronology is possible (as argued in A Test of Time in 1999). For example, there is a lack of any secure evidence tying the supposed Tuthmosid palatial platforms (with the famous Aegean-style paintings) to the kings of the 18th Dynasty (scarabs with their names come from a different context) – this is why, originally, Bietak and his team dated the platforms earlier than the 18th Dynasty (to the Hyksos period), before then later changing this view. In line with the radiocarbon dates, it is likely that the original assessment was in fact correct. Meanwhile, there is no actual evidence for the supposed datum line of Ahmose’s conquest, and the Khayan palace needs re-dating…. All is change. This applies to Egyptian historical chronology as well. The most recent assessments indicate an earlier start date for the 18th Dynasty (see A Test of Time Revisited pp. 21-24, 116-133, 181-183)5 – and help minimize (or bridge) what was perceived as the large gap between the early Thera date and the historical Egyptian chronology. A raised date for the start of the 18th Dynasty (first king = Ahmose) has another intriguing aspect. A link between the Tempest Stela of Ahmose and the Thera eruption has been suggested before – but with the previous lower Egyptian chronology there was a large time gap versus the science-based dates for the Thera eruption (and I argued against such a link in A Test of Time). Now it becomes intriguing to re-consider an association of the Ahmose Tempest Stela with the effects of the eruption, whether with Ahmose as a direct witness at the start of his reign or life, or as including a dramatic event from a little before.6

Opponents of the earlier chronology have not been idle. Much attention has focused on an olive branch found buried by the Thera eruption. Critics observed that it is problematic to identify annual tree-rings in olive wood (correct), and argued that a date for this branch based on radiocarbon measurements and an estimated ring count was therefore invalid.7 However, this is irrelevant; with no tree-ring information at all the simple sequence (inner wood to outer wood) of radiocarbon dated segments from the branch yields almost the same date range for the last wood in the branch around or before 1600 BC (see A Test of Time Revisited pp. 74-77, 179-181).8 Traces of leaves found associated with the branch indicate that it was not long dead by the time of the eruption (another suggestion by critics).

All in all, as a Test of Time Revisited argues, the evidence today is strongly in support of an early date for the Thera eruption and a new early (or ‘high’) Aegean and east Mediterranean chronology, and in turn cultural synthesis. This includes most recently a well-dated speleothem which appears likely to offer a date for the Thera eruption in the late 17th century BC.9 The times they are a-changin’.

By Sturt Manning

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1. Johnston, E.N., Sparks, R.S.J., Phillips, J.C. and Carey, S. 2014. Revised estimates for the volume of the Late Bronze Age Minoan eruption, Santorini, Greece. Journal of the Geological Society, London, 171: 583-590.

  1. Höflmayer, F. 2012. The Date of the Minoan Santorini Eruption: Quantifying the “Offset”. Radiocarbon 54(3-4): 435-448.

3. Kutschera, W., Bietak, M., Wild, E.M., Bronk Ramsey, C., Dee, M., Golser, R., Kopetzky, K., Stadler, P., Steier, P., Thanheiser, U and Weninger, F. 2012.The chronology of Tell el-Daba: a crucial meeting point of 14C dating, archaeology, and Egyptology in the 2nd millennium BC. Radiocarbon 54(3-4): 407-422.

4. Moeller, N. and Marouard, G. (with a contribution by Ayers, N.) 2011. Discussion of late Middle Kingdom and early Second Intermediate Period history and chronology in relation to the Khayan Sealings from Tell Edfu. Ägypten und Levante 21: 87-121.

5. Aston, D. 2012. Radiocarbon, Wine Jars and New Kingdom Chronology. Ägypten und Levante 22: 289-315.

6. Ritner, R.K. and Moeller, N. 2014. The Ahmose ‘Tempest Stela’, Thera and Comparative Chronology, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 73: 1-19.

7. Cherubini, P., Humbel, T., Beeckman, H., Gärtner, H., Mannes, D., Pearson, C., Schoch, W., Roberto Tognetti, R. & Lev-Yadun, S. 2014. The olive-branch dating of the Santorini eruption, Antiquity 88: 267-73.

  1. Friedrich, W.L., Kromer, B., Friedrich, M., Heinemeier, J., Pfeiffer, T. & Talamo, S. 2014. The olive branch chronology stands irrespective of tree-ring counting, Antiquity 88: 274-277.

9. Badertscher, S., Borsato, A., Frisia, S., Cheng, H., Edwards, R.L., Tüysüz, O. and Fleitmann, D. 2014. Speleothems as sensitive recorders of volcanic eruptions – the Bronze Age Minoan eruption recorded in a stalagmite from Turkey. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 392: 58-66.